C’mere a minute. Lemme be honest for a minute (shocking, I never do that) I love comic books. I do, always have, always will. Have you ever read a book and wished you could follow the characters further? Richard Rahl, Rand Al’Thor, James Bond, Dirk Pitt, Samwise Gamgee, that nerdy British kid with the goofy glasses and magic stick, all ended and left fans with a sense of a friend leaving to live a life we aren’t part of. In comic books they keep on living (too much in some cases but I’ll save that for later) and we have an almost unlimited supply of adventures. The trade off is that not every story is as good as the last. Creative teams shift and move on to other things and some are tough acts to follow. The creative team of the comic book really needs to be a team, each has a role and if done correctly they create true art in story telling.
For those that aren’t familiar with the concept let me break it down in basic terms. First off is the writing, it IS a story after all, even in the extremely rare silent issue there has to be a story. The writer has to tell us a compelling tale, sometimes for years. The added pressure these days is that the film and TV expansion of comics has added an extra layer of pressure. Names like Neil Gaiman and Frank Miller have contributed to major character mythos in comics and then moved on to books, films and TV. Gaiman recently saw his American Gods novel make it’s TV debut his work on The Sandman for DC’s Vertigo imprint is considered in the upper echelon of the genre to this day, the constant rumour that The Sandman will make a screen appearance has been a constant story in the preproduction “news”. Frank Miller, my favorite writer in the genre, his comics Sin City and 300 have made it to the big screen and each had sequels made, Sin City in particular was mind blowingly true to the source material, but wait there’s more. Miller retconned Marvel stalwart Daredevil and his material is largely responsible for both seasons of DD on Netflix, his Wolverine work fleshed out the character we see in everything, not to be out done his work on Batman for DC is spread across not only the current DC film franchises but Batman Begins as well. That isn’t to say there are only a few worth while writers, Chris Claremont defined the X-Men and much of their convoluted film story is pieced together from his efforts. Brian Michael Bendis provided Marvel with it’s major company shaking events in the last 10 years including Secret Invasion, Civil War, Seige, Age of Ultron and Old Man Logan (the inspiration for the film Logan). Good writing can make a book, bad writing can kill a character, but writing can only go so far the second major component must blend well.
Art, here is a tremendous team effort, it starts with the penciler. This is the set of hands that lays out the pictures, man or woman these people pick up a pencil and create what we see. They draw the book, in pencil (I know what you’re thinking just wait) and get a lot of the credit for the art as a whole but they aren’t the whole team. Each artist brings their own style, some are cartoonish (Todd McFarlane), some are all about 0% body fat (Jim Lee), some do more grounded realistic (Greg Smallwood), others may be more gritty (Mark Texiera), each artist brings a specific style to the book which must be compatible with the writers story and the character. The penciler is the superstar of the industry because they set the visual style for each book and get instant credit where the writer needs to produce a complete and compelling story. In the early 1990’s seven of these artists left Marvel and formed Image Comics, all artists and many wrote their own stories, some went better than others and the Image of today is not the same Image that gave us Spawn and…well I doubt anyone would know another title from then but these days a little book called The Walking Dead (Yes, THAT one) lives under that logo. So if the superstar is the artist why doesn’t every book look like a “How to Draw…” book?
Let’s look at the second stage of the art, the inks. The Inker’s job is to go over the pencils and define the true lines of the panel then add shading and depth to accentuate the image. If you would like a better explanation I direct you to Kevin Smith’s finest film Chasing Amy which involves several comic creator characters. The penciler/inker team really makes the art pop. When a pair is in sync they make magic, not to say it is always a pair, with enough time one person can do both jobs, but publishing deadlines are strict in the big leagues so often we see at least two people in these roles. The best teams seem to travel together and for good reason. I know what this sounds like but I assure you an Inker is NOT a tracer.
Next on our art team tour de force is the third stage personel, these days it can be a studio handling things or the traditional single soul, the Colourist. Yes balck and white comics have a place and are great in many cases (Sin City, Walking Dead) but we need colour and in the last few years the colourists have become a much larger force in the art. Current books like Daredevil and Moon Knight have highlighted the colourist and really made their contribution a character in the book, essential for the feel and character of the entire piece, by far this is my most compelling portion of the art. While the detail of colouring some artists work is crucial if the colour can stand on its own and enhance any artists work the book will always maintain a certain tone which will stay consistent no matter the writers direction or artists style.
Finally we get to the keyboard player of our band. The over looked and under appreciated soul that completes the whole ensemble despite the tiny genitals. I kid, I have heard that Letterers are super well hung. You simply can not read a comic book without a letterer, there would be no words, literally no words. Much like colourists the letterer is an after thought of the creative team unless they go above and beyond to give a style to the words. Language is a tricky thing to impart, tone is hard to convey in letters (how many texts have you had back fire?) You can see below that the letters are in a different font for Loki than for Norman Osbourne, in this case indicating Loki’s Asgardian heritage. Takee note of the Y, A, E, H. S and T in each bubble. I left it huge on purpose, this is a shot of a few panels in Marvel’s Seige #1.
While this is a common divergence the various speech styles, including untranslated alien languages, fall to this set of hands. Clearly the least recognized yet most crucial portion, if we cant read the story does it exist?
There you go folks, a brief over view of the creative collaboration involved in a comic book, which has become the starting point for billions of dollars of much loved entertainment. Don’t mistake me that is just the small crew that does the grunt work, editors, researchers, proof readers and an army of others to get books out each month. That’s just the big few, there are others out there on the independent or DYI circuit doing multiple roles just trying to get the art out. These stories ARE art, these characters still resonate with us and have life beyond the page and single author. They live. Stories today are getting better and the art is too, your next favorite movie is on a word program and easel right now. The next big TV/NetFlix sensation is being coloured and lettered by people that will never sign an autograph. Frankly I have read many of the books that we are all watching and with out exception the books are better, look in to it or maybe hand one to the kid in your life, start a friendship that will last decades.